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5 SPY TERMS DISGUISED AS ORDINARY PHRASES

Explaining the vocabulary of espionage — common phrases that mean something quite different on the lips of spies.

Blowback

US NavyOriginally, “blowback” referred to an expulsion of gases, usually resulting from an explosion, pressure release, or the after effects of combustion. It later came to mean unforeseen consequences, often of a political nature.

The CIA first used the term in a 1954 report, recently declassified, on a coup in Iran that was covertly sponsored by the U.S. The “blowback” from this operation would play out on TV screens worldwide as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, the overthrow of the repressive Shah, and the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran. The word, as used by “The Company,” came to mean any kind of negative unintended consequences of an operation.

Blowback” is also the title of a spy novel co-authored by former CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Spy TipTo avoid blowback, avoid aligning yourself, covertly or otherwise, with any warring factions in your home or office. If you must support a domestic or workplace coup d’etat, be sure you back the winner, do so with minimum collateral damage, and do not supply any of the combatants with heavy armaments.

Chicken Feed

It’s food for poultry.Chickens at Tranquilles Duh! But of course, it’s also a common idiom meaning a paltry sum, an insultingly small wage for one’s hard labor.

In spy slang, chicken feed is information fed to an enemy intelligence agency by an agent or double agent. “Chicken feed” intel is accurate but not particularly useful or damaging to the leaker, and it’s used to establish a covert agent’s value to an opposition agency.

Spy Tip: When trying to win someone’s confidence, it often helps to offer chicken feed—some tidbit of personal information you don’t really care about. Think of something mostly true, but not particularly sensitive, and share it—the boyfriend who dumped you, or the time you sang karaoke at the company party. You don’t have to fill in the details—like the fact that you sing quite well and were only dating that guy because he had a Piper Cub. The listener will fill in the details to suit himself, often to your advantage.   

Dry Clean

photo by Michael RiveraThe ancient Romans discovered that a combination of ammonia and a type of clay called fuller’s earth cleaned togas better than water did. Later civilizations elected not to use a byproduct of urine to loosen tough stains and turned instead to kerosine and gasoline. After a number of explosions, professional cleaners in the 20th century began using chlorine-based industrial solvents.

In spycraft, a “dry clean” is a counter-surveillance measure. If an agent believes he’s picked up a tail, he might get into a subway and step back out right before the doors close, or, if he’s in a car, make a rapid U-turn and see if any vehicles also reverse course.

Spy tip: If you think a car might be following you, try the U-turn maneuver (safely!) or turn into a quiet cul-de-sac, and see whether the tail follows you into the dead end.

To read the rest, head to Pursuit Magazine